collection: Phone Company Leaves Wake Up Call For City

As far as cities go, Rolling Meadows, Ill., incorporated in 1955, is still a youngster. But the Chicago suburb of 23,000 residents is wise enough to know the value of applying private-sector tactics to its solid waste services.

In 1992, the city was forced to scrutinize its waste operations when a large AT&T billing center left town, taking approximately $2 million in annual tax revenues with it, says City Manager Bill Barlow. Those revenues previously had gone a long way toward paying for services such as residential garbage collection, which the city's public works department provided at no fee. As a result, accounting for the true cost of that collection had not been a priority.

The city's approach, Barlow says, largely had been "When you've got the money, who cares what it costs?"

But AT&T's departure, combined with the overall financial pressures placed on local governments these days, changed all that. In 1992, Rolling Meadows began billing residents $10 per month for collection provided by six public works refuse employees. Although the city gradually raised that fee, officials "didn't want to shock the residents by passing along the service's true cost," Barlow says.

Actually, Mayor Thomas Menzel, who took office in 1995, decided that even the city was not sure what the cost was and appointed a solid waste committee to find out. The committee decided on $19.85 per customer as the monthly cost of collection - a service for which the city currently was charging only $17.25, according to Barlow.

From a government-as-business perspective, something clearly was wrong. After a request for bids revealed that private collection would cost around $17 a month, the city was at the privatization crossroads.

After six months of uncertainty, with employees wondering about their jobs and residents about garbage services, the city found a fiscally responsible way to keep collection duties inhouse.

Switching to one-person, right-hand drive refuse trucks, a change that allowed the city to trim its collection crew from six to four people was key (one employee retired and the other transferred to the utilities division). The change was inspired by several private-sector bid proposals' mention of one-person trucks, Barlow says.

"We can't diminish the fact that there are lessons to be learned from the private sector," Barlow says. "If we're going to operate as efficiently as the private sector, we've got to learn from them."

So, by taking a cue from the private proposals, Rolling Meadows was able to continue its more than two-decade-old tradition of providing reliable waste collection in-house.

The switch to one-man trucks is part of what city officials describe as an overall "re-engineering" of solid waste services. This effort, which the city expects will save approximately $117,000 annually, also includes:

* Reducing the city's refuse bag program costs. Public Works Director Fred Vogt says the city now gives residents 52 free bags per year - about half the previous amount. Residents who want more bags can either buy them from the city or from retailers.

* Eliminating the dumpster pick-up program. The city had been charging parties such as home remodelers $125 to use its containers, while private firms were getting $300. After losing around $20,000 on this program in 1996, the city council decided to leave the business to the private sector, according to Vogt.

* Leasing the city's transfer station to a subcontractor. The subcontractor is seeking permits to redevelop this site as a facility to serve Rolling Meadows and surrounding communities.

* Hiring a new private contractor for recycling duties. The city has been divided into five zones, and the contractor will pick up recyclables in each zone on the same days that city refuse crews come through. The previous system was less "user friendly," Vogt says, because many residents had separate refuse and recyclables collection days.

* Implementing cost-accounting.

A committee comprised of refuse division employees played a vital role in identifying these steps. For example, after evaluating eight models, the committee selected the city's new 64,000-lb. trucks, with Mack chassis and Heil rear-loading packing bodies, at a cost of $127,050 each.

"I think the guys understood what was facing them and wanted to keep their jobs, [and] through the creative process of teamwork, we were able to come up with solutions," Barlow says.

The key has been changing routines that were followed more by habit than clear knowledge of their effectiveness. "One of the things my staff has learned is that it's okay to look at how we go about doing things and keep an open mind about working more efficiently," Vogt says.

1 - C. By pulling tires for retreading at this level, instead of 4/32nds or 2/32nds (the legal limit), truckers can maximize tire casing life.

2 - A. It takes 22 gallons of oil to manufacture one new truck tire, as compared to seven gallons to retread one.

3 - B. Tires contain a high percentage of petroleum-based synthetic rubber.

4 - D.

5 - B. Executive Order 12873 mandates the use of retreaded tires on federal vehicles.

For more information, contact: Tire Retread Information Bureau, 900 Weldon Grove, Pacific Grove, Calif. 93950. (408) 372-1917. Fax: (408) 372-9210.